You’ve probably forgotten amidst the change sweeping the world, from Superstorm Sandy to elections to Greece buckling under fiscal strain yet again, or you never heard in the first place. It’s impossible to write about film in a vacuum; it’s filtered through the events flanking it and the willingness of readers to set aside whatever important business they have to read 1,000-plus words from a person they’ve never met with an opinion they may or may not care for, and film news happens to be pretty low on the hierarchy of priority journalism.
Nevertheless, it’s been brought in the open and repeated throughout the web for two weeks: Walt Disney bought Lucasfilm and they’re making a seventh Star Wars.
Those who saw the headlines responded with outrage, passion, but also ambivalence and an apathy hardwired by Lucasfilm’s less-seemly legacy in recent years, on top of the common notion — not incorrect — that sequels are the norm in the industry and there’s no point hitching our breeches over it. A few thought it might even be the best move for a company tainted by age, stagnation, and whatever else decays creativity over time. George Lucas is out of touch; he set the wheel in motion but now it’s time for younger talents to take control.
I can’t disagree with any of this, although there’s few people to argue now as we go into November and recent events have nearly wiped the story from memory. All the better for Disney, who must appreciate the anonymity now afforded them to lay the foundations not only for their handling of Star Wars but also every other property under the Lucasfilm banner. That includes Indiana Jones and video games produced by LucasArts like the Monkey Island series (assuming these will be remembered with all focus on marketing Star Wars). It’s also a self-esteem boost for a company still flexing its muscles in the entertainment world, testing how many companies it’s allowed to absorb. Lucasfilm followed Pixar and Marvel, and now Hasbro seems destined for assimilation. Disney’s media empire grows with alarming speed, even by Hollywood standards where conglomerates prosper.
So why am I dredging up a news story that’s run its course? What’s left to say? You may have noticed I don’t really deal in around-the-clock news, aside from my Twilight article and “Trailer Thrash,” itself a more leisurely take on the “find the latest trailer and write about it!” blog post. I never wanted to write about film in two/three paragraph bursts, giving just the facts and a hint of what I think. I find more merit in fleshing out the significance of these news bits, delving into the unspoken assumptions and subtleties guiding films, the artists and businesspeople behind them, even their criticism from supposedly objective observers, journalists bound to standards that can’t mask all bias – and that includes mine. You get a lot more out of an analysis built from that level of thought, while deadlines can sharpen writing but also strip down and dehumanize it.
I wanted to write about the Lucasfilm purchase when news first broke out. Had I published the story then it might have received more hits than now; I would have gotten to join the discourse at the time it was freshly waged across the web. Now, in the lull between merger and further news of Star Wars Episode VII‘s production, I’m just sharing my two cents for those who still care. For that person still reading: this is for you.
Is the purchase a good move? It is and it isn’t, and it’s also neither. I’ve had friends treat Walt Disney Company like Scrooge McDuck stripped of all likeability, reduced to a curmudgeony billionare swimming alone in their money. In politics wealth can hold two connotations depending where you stand: Mitt Romney’s either a stingy, detached tax evader or a savvy self-made leader; Donald Trump has good business instincts or he’s just a crotchety loon. Philosophy and party affiliation change the whole picture on if we agree with Michael Douglas that “greed is good.”
It’s not so ambivalent with movies. Something about the creative arts demands both artist and financiers appear true to their craft. Films, books, and music can be made for the most nefarious and selfish purposes, but for the audience engaging with the product it must seem that the ideas presented are genuine, and concern is for the person experiencing the art, not the art maker’s personal gain. People can rag on Michael Bay and Transformers because the films are trashy commercial crap and Michael Bray treats filmmaking as strictly business, but for the people in the theatre watching Optimus Prime smash a Decepticon in slow-motion there is a brief connection, however lowbrow and cheap, that satisfies the audience’s need for violence, macho posturing, catharsis through destruction, enough so they’re able to leave the theatre happy.
Now contrast that with last year’s The Devil Inside, a found-footage fauxumentary centering on exorcism. It’s a blatant mash-up of Paranormal Activity and The Exorcist, and for some that would be reason enough to avoid it. But what killed the film at theatres and sent box office plummeting 76.2% its second week (unheard of, even for critically reviled blockbusters) was an ending that asked viewers to log onto a promotional website to continue the story. Multimedia viral campaigns aren’t uncommon–Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity used it to great effect–but The Devil Inside was blunt and tactless enough with its money-mongering to offend audiences. Say what you will but moviegoers aren’t stupid; they sensed insincerity and the film suffered for it.
With Disney then there’s that divide between the works of individual artists–John Lasseter, Walt Disney himself–and the corporation they belong to. People detest the Walt Disney corporation, that multimillion Lovecraftian mass of commercialism powerful enough to advertise only its own products on the Disney Channel, but they’ll watch Walt Disney productions (Fantasia, Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast) without a prick of guilt. This isn’t latent hypocrisy; it’s all built on very clear principle. Artist = good. Accountants = bad. The people behind office doors make deals with the devil while the artists in the workshop pour out their souls for us.
Of course this isn’t really true and the studio’s “money team” is often just as passionate about good storytelling as their creative personnel. The dynamic of artist vs. executive comes from the nature of the industry nowadays where money is divided among so many departments, producers, and sponsors that no individuals can be held accountable, and nobody wants to be held accountable because they enjoy job security like the rest of us. Producers avoid risks and play close with their money because their job is at stake, not because they hate Christmas.
Which means Disney gorging itself on other companies feeds into the very circumstances that encourage business-types to hold the artists on an even tighter leash. It doesn’t matter that the company is rich with multiple billions of dollars and stockbrokers love them: the money has countless channels to traverse before it touches anywhere near a single film production; and if that production bombs there’s millions of lost funds that could have been used to balance the many off-shoots of the Disney empire, from its theme parks to a new TV series under the Disney-ABC network. I say all this without an ounce of corporate know-how or understanding of how conglomerates work. No doubt there’s a system in place for Disney’s subunits to coexist peacefully while juggling funds between each. Disney is not playing with firecrackers; they’ve been around nearly a hundred years, they know how to stay afloat. But so did the British Empire, and the Russian, and Ottoman and Spanish and Belgian and Japanese… Empires are sturdy giants that grow brittle with time, and the larger Disney gets the larger a fall it’s bracing to avoid.
In that way buying Lucasfilm was a bad move. It has nothing to do with Star Wars; Lucasfilm could have been any other company and the effect would be the same. For all the benefits of expansion and the new marketable properties entering their library, it puts the company at constant risk by threatening their increasingly convoluted structure. Of course one film won’t send Walt Disney crumbling like a Jenga tower. They recovered from John Carter’s $200 million loss just fine, right? But that debacle caused bedlam within: head of Walt Disney Studios’* Rick Ross resigned, his studio’s income deteriorated by $161 million, and the whole company lost $84 million that March. Going under happens only once and comes with a cathartic sense of release. Turmoil strikes every day in tiny, nail biting jerks and sets everybody on edge. Nobody has patience for original ideas.
* This is not the same as the general Walt Disney Company. That you probably confused them proves how subsidized Disney’s become.
But before you go “A-ha!” and cement your opinion on the evils of industry and how fascists are ruining Disney, here’s the other reality: a centralized company, rich but aware of it skill set, built around the media it excels in but daring enough to expand into new artistic territory, can be presided over by its founder, devoted to a small list of franchises, and still fall under the same conditions that plague mega corps like Disney.
That’s what happened to Lucasfilm after all.
I don’t want to turn this into a George Lucas roast. I’m not here to rehash the anger many felt at the Star Wars prequels or Indiana Jones 4. RedLetterMedia said it best; so did Simon Pegg on Spaced. At any given point on the Internet you’re one hyperlink away from someone telling you Lucas raped their childhood, so I won’t dwell on it other than to say the dissatisfaction is real and not without merit.
More importantly, Lucasfilm’s degradation points to a tendency most people can’t admit, or if they do it leads them to assume the reflexive stance that popularity corrupts and we should all hide in our little hipster bubbles with the obscure artists we trust. George Lucas may have singlehandedly created the modern film landscape and defined with Spielberg our notion of the blockbuster, but billions of dollars, two decades, and a series of changes in creative and private philosophy later, he’s not the same Lucas who worshiped Joseph Campbell and Flash Gordon shorts and dreamed of merging them into an international movie phenomenon. His priorities have changed. A family man, he’s happy to write and market the new Star Wars films for a younger audience, dialing back the brutality of The Empire Strikes Back with Jar Jar Binks and the new Clone Wars CG cartoon. He no longer has the support of actors like Harrison Ford, directors Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand, and the sprawling creative team that handled the continuation of Lucas’s vision in Episodes V and VI. Without anyone to balance his creative hang-ups we’ve seen a much more honest picture of George Lucas: the man who invented most modern special effects; who continues to support burgeoning film technicians in his company and alma mater, USC, which he donates to regularly; who can’t write his way out of a love scene, let alone a trilogy of $100+ million epics; a great entrepreneur and conceptualist who has set his artist days long behind him.
Lucasfilm under one man has suffered the same decay as Disney split between a hundred branching units. Had George Lucas not allowed the transaction that passed Lucasfilm into the hands of Disney, the company would probably have continued even after his retirement. It might not have released any new films on level with Star Wars or Indiana Jones, but in areas where it continues to prosper (video gaming / television, literature spin-offs) the wheel would continue to spin lazily, the ebb of creativity at a constant low. The purchase might not help Disney prioritize original material, but at least for Star Wars it ensures Disney can fill its cast and crew with its limitless pool of reliable talents, artists not familiar enough with the material to be lulled into the dangerous complacency that led George Lucas to stop challenging himself. Perhaps – and this is the most hypothetical of hypothesizing – the Star Wars series will experience a second wind like the James Bond franchise with Skyfall, or at least the variety of switching directors like in the Harry Potter series. Right now we have Little Miss Sunshine / Toy Story 3 scribe Michael Arndt director on board as writer, with Matthew Vaughn, Jon Favreau and Colin Trevorrow listed as possible directors. These names already hint at a more invigorated Star Wars experience than we’ve seen in years. The future may be uncertain, but between the clouds there’s a hint of bright optimism. I wouldn’t have been so hopeful with an independent Lucasfilm.
I’ve listed my takes on the pros and cons of the Disney/Lucasfilm purchase, but whether Episode VII kickstarts a Star Wars Renaissance, or Disney never makes another innovative property again, there’s the fact this is not shocking news. In many ways it’s inevitable. Star Wars has never stopped being made, profited from, and tinkered with since Episode III, from the Expanded Universe books to the games, TV show, and Lego tie-ins, including the theatrically-released Star Wars: The Clone Wars. This’ll just be the first time a new Star Wars entry postures itself as an “official entry.” Lucasfilm and Disney are not breaking some sacred trust with film audiences to preserve their good memories of the original Star Wars; they broke it when Lucas decided to celebrate Star Wars and Christmas together, on TV, for all of us.
If you still disagree with it, you have the right to protest Disney and argue for the abolishing of all unnecessary sequels. I support your cause as much as I root for a new Star Wars directed by Matthew Vaughn (Seriously, can you imagine a Star Wars as great as Kick-Ass? X-Men: First Class?). As more production news trickles through the web and fans continue to debate its merits, Star Wars Episode VII should be discussed scrupulously, outside the hasty language of first impressions. Film development is rarely a case of “good vs. evil” decisions; where you stand comes down to your philosophy, principle, and the evidence (film history, bloggers, friends) you use to decide. Even when the film comes out and a critical consensus builds around the new Star Wars, it will be you who decide its worth for you. Nobody – Disney, Lucasfilm, myself – can ever take that away.